If you’re a Mystery Science Theater 3000 fan, your fondest memories probably revolve around classic film riffs and the show’s surprisingly believable cast of humans, robots, apes, aliens and mole people.
Yet MST3K was also a very musical show, full of comical songs and endless jokes at the expense of cheesy film scores. And since all of this took place aboard an orbital space station, I thought a chat with MST3K creator and Cinematic Titanic riffer Joel Hodgson was in order.
Joel was kind enough to take a break from crafting riffs on The Doll Squad (set to debut live, July 5 in Ann Arbor, MI) and wrapping up Riff Camp 2012 to chat with me on such diverse topic as the maker culture of Gizmonic Institute and the power of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
ROBERT LAMB: What is your relationship with film and TV music and does it play out in your creative work?
JOEL HODGSON: Obviously it’s huge, as music is such a shared reference point for all of us, and one of my favorite riffs that we got going during MST3K was identifying “sound alike” music, then kind of adapting it or singing along with it. Also just singing along with the music that was already there “He tried to kill me with a forklift!” Even today, I’m working on riffs for The Doll Squad for Cinematic Titanic. In the film we’re riffing and it has a jazzy kind of score with a very frilly, mid-70s kind of jazz flute.
And there was just this moment where it sounded like this old NBC station Identification where they’d show the animated peacock and the buttery voiced announcer would say “This next production was brought to you by NBC in living color.” So, I’m pitching that as a riff. Also, I’m scanning my script right now and there are references to The Smothers Brothers and The Portland Gay Men’s Chorus. I’m not sure if Portland even has a Men’s Gay Chorus, if just seems as if they should. Also, this film The Doll Squad has a theme song that is obviously styled to sound like a Bond theme, sort of like Thunderball or Goldfinger, so it’s just natural to “call it out” and sing “Goldfinger!” or “Thunderball.” It’s one of the secrets of movie riffing I guess. We’re sharing the same experience by watching the movie together, then if you can “call out” a reference that is similar to yours, you’ve got yourself a riff.
How did music factor into the creation of Mystery Science Theater?
The best example I can give is that the show really came together when we attached the theme song to it. This seems obvious now but let me explain. Prior to the theme song, when we shot the pilot, I pictured the show to be like a pirate radio broadcast (another music analogy again, I know). And this guy in space was trying to send a distress message in the form of these films that he was watching in space with his robot companions.
After the first show, it was pretty clear that we needed something. Jim Mallon, the producer of the show, canvased some friends about what we needed and he returned with this suggestion: Why not write a theme song like Gilligan’s Island to explain it? So, Josh Weinstein and I went to work writing the lyrics, which actually really helped the show conceptually since it suggested “His Bosses didn’t like him so they shot him into space.” That was the beginning of “the Mads” and also “If you’re wondering how he eats and breathes and other science facts, just repeat to yourself it’s just a show, I should really just relax” was another really big theme that I feel became the creative thesis for the show.
Tell us about your work with Charlie Erickson on the theme song.
Charlie was—and still is—this very interesting presence in the Minneapolis music scene, and I happened to know him because he was my girlfriend’s cousin. He’s the type of person that music just flows out of, again wildly talented. Mostly, I remember meeting with him and doing my best to sing my version of the theme song to him, my memory of was it probably sounding similar to The Riviera’s’ California Sun. Charlie gave it a listen, picked out a rhythm track, and arranged the chord progression. Before you could say, “Bob’s your uncle,” he’d produced a rough version of the theme on a four-track recorder in his apartment. We then did the vocal track with me singing the lyrics and Charlie added the now famous “la-la-la’s.” The theme pretty much remains that way to this day, with slight lyrical reiterations with each new version. Later, we made a more produced version and Charlie and I got to go book studio time to do it up right. Production wise, I was hoping to make a pop hybrid that that could resemble The Replacements sort of trashcan pop sensibilities and Devo, who conversely had very postmodern kind of take on music. It was a great experience overall and I feel that Charlie was being very generous in sharing writing credit with me, as he clearly could have done the music without me.
So I get the sense that Mystery Science Theater’s musical heritage really springs from the 70s and 80s.
Yeah, you just had to be there but back in the 70s and 80s. Music was the beginning of what felt like a really deep expansion of counter-culture values and ideas. You had characters in it like Frank Zappa, Sun Ra, Captain Beefheart, Joe Walsh, Mahavishnu, John McLaughlin, Stanley Clarke and The Firesign Theater to name just a few. It was an incredible articulate world that was pretty much hidden from the majority of people. Learning about what they used to call “album-oriented rock” became a kind of rite of passage for my friends and I.
This was before the Internet and you didn’t have that access to quickly pursue your interest. You had to really find it by looking in the paper and Rolling Stone Magazine and by talking to people to find this eclectic kind of hidden information.
When I was kid there was really just the top 40 radio. Then FM radio started to happen and, for a brief time, it exposed this underbelly of all this really creative music.
Those were big touchstones for us in doing Mystery Science Theater. Most of us shared that knowledge of music. That was kind of an early bellwether about people—if they knew about eclectic music, and if they knew about music that was left of the dial and was clearly more edifying, articulate and more diverse than what was sold to you at the Kmart or the Target. In my mind, it was kind of the beginning of the diverse knowledge culture we live in now, and the world of ideas we were referencing while riffing.
Now, in the show, you mention “Rocket Number Nine.” Was that a reference to Sun Ra?
Yeah, that’s absolutely a reference to Sun Ra. Sun Ra’s band was called the Myth Science Orchestra and for a brief time, was kind of toying with the title Myth Science Theater 3000, but it kind of sounds like you’re lisping when you say it, but yeah, absolutely. Space is the place, right?
Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey was an enormously influential film. What effect did it have on you?
2001 was the strangest experience for me, because when it came out I was eight years old. Can you imagine being a kid, seeing posters and ads for it and not being able to go? Just wondering what they were about. I think this goes back to the mindset of the 60s and 70s, and how they really sold 2001 as this experience. It really was a trip into space. When you think about shows prior to that, there just was nothing else like it.
It was just an unblinking vision of what it would be like to be in space and to travel in space and what it would look like and feel like and what you’d wear. The story is so peculiar and really not all that satisfying, but it was just such an experience.
Also, I feel that Kubrick really assigned the idea of symphonic music to space. Would there be the Star Wars Theme without Kubrick? I don’t think so.
One of my favorite 2001 jokes that’s built into Mystery Science Theater that Trace came up with when we were designing the Satellite of Love he suggested we made it shaped like a bone. So it’s a manifestation of the frames of the film between when the bone that the “early man” throws up into the air and the space shuttle it turns into in the opening of 2001. It’s like Trace morphed them together! Incredible! I think we all that kind of affection for 2001 and we would revisit referencing that movie over and over in the course of the show.
The other kind of funny side note is that Douglas Trumbull did a lot of the special effects for 2001: A Space Odyssey. And Mystery Science Theater is loosely based on a Douglas Trumbull movie called Silent Running which was about a guy who is you know that movie right?
Oh yes, that was a favorite of mine when I was a kid.
I was inspired of the the idea of the guy lost in space with three robots from Silent Running.
I never knew there was a direct link, but I would see it on TV and think, “Ah. This is a bit like MST except a little darker and with Joan Baez music.”
Now, isn’t that funny? Folk music in space, but it kind of worked. I liked that tune Rejoice in the Sun— very counterpoint to the rest of what was going on in space music.
I was strangely obsessed with that movie. I believe I saw it when I was about twelve years old, on the ABC movie of the week. I’m not sure If I mentioned this but I watched a bunch of TV as a kid. Silent Running really stuck with me and this in the 70s before the advent of home VCRs and cable TV so when you wanted to see a movie again you had to do some pretty outrageous things to see it, that could mean setting your alarm for the middle of the night or do what I did.
Anyway, when I was in college my roommate was the “campus coordinator” and he’s the guy who booked all the entertainment for the college. He had this huge catalog of movies you could license and watch.
Back then, if you wanted to show a movie at your college, you had get the sixteen millimeter film print and there was this company that rented these films to your college and I found Silent Running in the catalog! That was the only way I could see it: Rent the film and screen it at my college. So yeah, I wanted to see it, so everybody at the college watched it along with me. I can’t imagine anyone else really being interested in watching it—all I can say is, it was a very different world.
On a side note I also brought in the Creature From the Black Lagoon in 3D to my school, as I was working on a painting in my art class that used the optical 3D elements and I needed about 200 pairs of 3D glasses for the art show.
Oh, wait, I’m looking at the Wikipedia page for Silent Running and it says that the sound track was written by bassoonist and P. D. Q. Bach creator Peter Schickele. Will wonders ever cease?
I always loved the invention exchange on MST3k. Do you still get inspired for that sort of prop-based comedy?
It’s funny, but those types of ideas have tapered off for the most part and I can’t exactly tell you why. A lot of those gags were things that I designed and created when I was doing my stand-up. I just wrote a lot and saved all my notes.
When we started doing Mystery Science Theater, the premise of Gizmonic Institute was that Joel was a guy who had gone to Gizmonic Institute and the mads were like these heretics of the Institute. They’d basically commandeered the Satellite of Love and kidnapped this guy and launched the rocket into space and had a way of shrouding what they had done from Gizmonic Institute, so the Institute didn’t know they had a guy up there and basically were running these experiments.
My idea was that inventions were kind of the coin of the realm at Gizmonics Institute. There was this kind of inventor/maker culture and so every time you met another person from Gizmonic Institute, you were supposed to show them what you’re working on. Also, it was just so monotonous to try to think of show openings. Doing an invention exchange gave you a task to take care of right away and get you into the show.
Well thanks for talking with me. I started watching back in middle school and Mystery Science Theater continues to be an important part of my life and the lives of my friends. I feel like your style of comedy really informed our senses of humor and we still hold it close to our hearts.
Thanks so much. Yeah, I’m always happy to hear that and we’re so lucky because time has gone by and people still appreciate it. This Christmas, Shout! Factory‘s releasing our 25th box set. That’s going to be 100 Mystery Science Theater DVDs they’ve put out! It’s pretty amazing to me.
Originally published at HSW: Space Music: Joel Hodgson Talks Riffing, MST3K and Film Scores
Robert Lamb is a senior staff writer at HowStuffWorks.com and co-host of the Stuff to Blow Your Mind podcast and blog. He is also a regular contributor to Discovery News. Follow him on Twitter @blowthemind.